Hello, everybody and welcome to the first Radio Freekinternational, live from London.
What is Radio Freekinternational? For non-Cubans, who might be puzzled by this hybrid of a word, half bastardised English and half Cuban, the explanation is simple. RFI is the brainchild of one of the better blogs on the Cuban blogoshephere nowadays, generacionasere. It is a valuable and laudable attempt to unite those of us (and those before us) who grew up in the 60s, 70s and 80s when music in the Anglo-Saxon lexicon was frowned upon by the Cuban government, if not outright banned.
The word ‘freeki’, ‘friqui’, or ‘freaki’ denoted a person who was keen on rock music. Another version that I saw on people’s school bags when I was younger was ‘Free Kiss’. What cannot be denied is that originally the word had a pejorative meaning, aiming to offend the person being addressed. This changed with the passing of time and ‘freeki’ was reclaimed quite justly by the rock community in the Caribbean island.
There’s a lovely if also sad story behind Radio Freekinternational and what it stands for and at the risk of coming across as a boring, old fuddy-duddy I will try to sum it up in a few paragraphs.
After the Mariel boatlift in 1980 when thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of Cubans left the country, the government clamped down on anything English. Not even Huckleberry Hound and Yogi the Bear were saved from the cull. They were replaced by Zé Carnero and 'El Rancho del Pájaro Amarillo'. I was 9 at the time and felt the change straight away. It would be two more years before the situation went back to ‘normal’. By then my generation was coming strong as a group of people who started to question their surroundings and did not take no for an answer. By the time I started secondary school in ’83, the country was gripped in an Oscarmania frenzy. This was as a result of the popular Venezuelan salsa musician Oscar D’ León’s visit to Cuba after which even the local music scene had to pull their socks up and catch up with the times. Visually, Oscar D’ León represented to many Cubans a carefree and blithe way of performing, not tied to dogmas or prejudgments. At that time the musical spectrum in Cuba was still dictated by whatever orders came from above and radio stations had very limited resources, ergo, music in English was poorly promoted. If you can imagine a plug blocking a water tap and water accumulating inside the tap (or faucet, whichever way you want to call it), that’s what the situation was like. And as it usually happens in real life, nature won. The tap burst out.
First it was Madonna. Then, Cindy. Or maybe both at the same time. Michael had already been popular for a long time as well as Kool and the Gang and Earth, Wind and Fire. There were other artists the generation before mine used to listen to clandestinely, like The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. My peers, though, caught the Zeitgeist of rock and pop from the 80s. And the result put paid to the government’s efforts to control a youth that used to pump up condoms as if they were balloons and tossed them in the air every Friday evening in front of the Havana University Alma Mater whilst listening to Moncada (a local pop band).
Then in 1987 (or ’88, my memory fails me) a second huge cultural phenomenon occurred. This one would turn the Cuban youth upside down and blaze the trail for a lot of Cuban musicians who were trying to find their voice, far from the normal conventions. A 24-, or 25-year-old Argentinian musician from Rosario arrived in Cuba armed only with a powerful repertoire of songs and a pair of trainers, of different colour each. By the time Fito Páez left, he was a legend and Havana was never the same. Wherever you went you were sure to find people offering their heart out, singing about a girl with a horn under her heart or chastising rushed decisions, especially the ones that cost lives. Through Fito Páez, I learnt about León Gieco, Charly García, Espinetta, Baglietto and many more Argentinian artists. I did not stop there and came face to face with Los Prisioneros for the first time. My younger self remembers a time when despite the fact that we were still getting the music out of date, at least we were getting it.
The media caught on the act and certain radio and television programmes appeared on the horizon with a bolder musical agenda. ‘El Programa de Ramón’, ‘En Confianza’, ‘A Capella’, Juanito’s Camacho’s daily outings on Radio Ciudad de la Habana and on Sundays evenings on the same station. Carlos Figueroa and Alfredo Balmaseda both promoted home-grown talent on their daily cultural timetable ‘Hoy (Today)’. It was an intoxicating time that shaped the generation I belonged to then and still belong to.
Because this generation, whether they were born before 1959 or after is united by a unique desire to express themselves in a coherent way. We are Jackson Pollock’s paintbrushes, dripping different hues onto our empty canvas, Cuba, ignoring the master’s instructions. We’ve foregone the hand guiding us through the blank space and have chosen to design that space ourselves. And that’s what the Cuban Blogosphere has become, a formidable force of debate, discussion, acceptance and respect.
Some of you, my dear non-Cuban readers will watch the clips below and will probably think that this is guilty-pleasure music. Well, no, this is just pleasure, there’s no guilt involved. The music below represents a stage of our lives that, thanks to this marvellous medium, the internet, can be relived and experienced again through the collective memory of a nation in exile.
I also know for a fact that many of you will watch the clips and will reminisce upon your own halcyon days of yesteryear. For that’s what nostalgia is about, reminiscing about the past with both feet planted in the present and looking determinedly to the future. And yes, you’ll probably shed a tear; I know I have these last few days whilst collating the list.
So, once again, this is just pleasure, no pain.
And the playlist, I hear you ask? Ha, ha. No, no playlist, my lovely little puppies. I am playing Cruella de Vil tonight and will delight in keeping you guessing as you sift through the almost one hundred clips included in this collection.
I would like to thank two blogs without whose help I would not have been able to host Radio Freekinternational tonight, nor would I have met the fantastic people who make up the Cuban Blogosphere. And they are Algodar for his blog ‘Blogs Sobre Cuba (Blogs about Cuba’ and generacionasere for coming up with the idea of Radio Freekinternational.
So, let’s enjoy this ride together, we all deserve it.
Disclaimer: Some clips contain some swearing, so readers/fellow bloggers, you have been warned.
This post is dedicated to ‘El Plátano’, exceptional Cuban photographer who died earlier this year. R.I.P.